Then there was Greta Van Fleet. Oh, Greta Van Fleet, you beautiful young hippie children. Remember when you were a kid and fantasized about getting up on stage at your high school talent show and just ripping into a Jimmy Page solo as your classmates stare and swoon in awe of your god-like guitar wizardry? It wasn’t just me, right? RIGHT? Well, Greta Van Fleet is currently living that dream, quite literally. If they sounded any more like Led Zeppelin, Phil Collins would be asking to drum for them.
Be that as it may, the kids from the land of the ice and snow (Frankenmuth, MI) have racked up three #1 hits on the mainstream rock charts over the past nearly two years. In October, they released their debut album Anthem Of The Peaceful Army, which peaked at #3 on the Billboard 200. Of course, this opened the door to people like that one uncle to proudly claim that “Rock is back!” at Thanksgiving before proceeding to talk to you about the first time they saw Rush live. Only time will tell how long this fad will last. I mean, didn’t we already try this with Wolfmother? At least those guys had cool cover art. Anyway, call me when GVF discover the Velvet Underground.
Music critics are lamenting the possibility of a machine-driven world that rewards artists not for their originality, creativity, or emotional authenticity, but for their ability to replicate proven, predetermined formulas. Studies show that pop music and lyrics have grown increasingly repetitive and homogenous over the past few decades, and there is a whole graveyard of startups mining streaming and social data to predict the next big hit. Research initiatives like Google Magenta and Sony’s Flow Machines are even training machine-learning algorithms to compose songs on the spot, aiming to be indistinguishable from human songwriting.
This warped reward system, by which musicians climb the streaming charts, can influence every aspect of a song, from the music and lyrics to the artists’ wider visual and social personas. In the aforementioned “algorithmic fever dream” review, for instance, Pitchfork’s Jeremy Larson described musician Greta Van Fleet’s attire at live shows as “hippie costumes they 3D-printed off the internet.”
Musical trends produced in the streaming era are inherently connected to attention, whether it’s hard-and-fast attention-grabbing hooks, pop drops and chorus-loops engineered for the pleasure centers of our brains, or music that strategically requires no attention at all — the background music, the emotional wallpaper, the chill-pop-sad-vibe playlist fodder. These sounds and strategies all have streambait tricks embedded within them, whether they aim to wedge bits of a song into our skulls or just angle toward the inoffensive and mood-specific-enough to prevent users from clicking away. All of this caters to an economy of clicks and completions, where the most precious commodity is polarized human attention — either amped up or zoned out — and where success is determined, almost in advance, by data.
The chill-hits Spotify sound is a product of playlist logic requiring that one song flows seamlessly into the next, a formula that guarantees a greater number of passive streams. It’s music without much risk — it won’t make you change your mind.
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